WE HAVE A STORY, 1: GOD’S STORY
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 25, 2015, Non-Lectionary Sermon, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Deuteronomy 26:1-10; Acts 2:22-24, 33-36

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”
Deuteronomy 26:5

“Tell me a story.”

Maybe you can remember hearing that request from a young child in your care. Or, if you’ve never had a young child in your care, maybe you can recall making that request yourself: of a mother or father, a grandmother or grandfather. There’s something about the telling and the hearing of stories — whether read from a book or made up on the spot — that bonds people in a unique way.

Story time is precious time. It’s a moment when time itself stands still. There may be a sinkful of dishes, a pile of bills to be paid, an inbox full of emails to answer. But such things scarcely matter when there’s a story to be shared.

Reading books to young children is a great thing, but experts maintain that it’s equally important to tell kids stories of their own family. Such stories give children a place in the world, a place where they belong. Chief among the things that bind strong families together is the stories they have in common: stories that get retold again and again at family reunions.

“Do you remember the time when….” Of course we remember that time — if not firsthand, then hearing it retold by others!

What’s true for families is true even of nations. Every nation that’s ever been has had its national mythology: Robin Hood and King Arthur in England, William Tell in Switzerland, Joan of Arc in France. We even have that kind of national story here in these United States — even though our nation is a lot younger than those others. How else to explain the tale of young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree (“Father, I cannot tell a lie: I did it with my little hatchet.”)?

So universal are such stories that science-fiction writer Ursula Leguin has pointed out: “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

And so, it ought to come as no surprise that there are stories that bind us together as Christians. In fact, this is one reason we have a Sunday School: to teach those stories to our children.

It always makes me sad when a family associated with our church declines to enroll their child in Sunday School. Yes, I know there are often competing priorities for kids on Sunday mornings: soccer games, dance classes and the like. And I don’t deny there’s value in piling the family into the car to go off on a Sunday drive someplace. Those experiences are important too.

But think for a moment about the implications of a Christian family not making absolutely certain their children learn the great Bible stories. You know they’re not going to learn them in school. Just as kids who never learn their own family’s stories have a hard time feeling part of the family, so children from nominally Christian households who never hear how Moses parted the waters of the sea, or David slew Goliath, or Jesus was tempted in the wilderness or Peter denied his Lord will ever grow up to see themselves as Christians. It’s like hanging out with a family but never hearing the family stories!

Some of you who, like me, are a little long in the tooth may remember Alex Haley’s bestseller, Roots and the TV mini-series of the 1970s based on it. It was based on his research into his own family’s origins. At the heart of it is a story, repeated over and over again, as each generation of that African-American family is succeeded by another. It’s the story of Kunta Kinte, who:

“…was not always a slave, but was a free man in Africa. But one day he went into the jungle to fetch some wood to make a drum. There, the slavers they catch him. And they sold him into slavery. And they chopped off half his foot so he couldn’t run away. And Kunta Kinte had a daughter, Kizzy. He taught her some words he brung from Africa…. And she remembered, and she taught her own son. And the son of Kizzy was the man folks call Chicken George. And he raised himself from slavery and became a free man.”

And so it goes, generation to generation in the Haley family. It’s notoriously difficult to do genealogy in American families with slavery in their background, because slaves were non-persons for so very long, and no one kept records of who they really were or where they’d come from. But in Alex Haley’s fictionalized version of his own family’s saga, that story functions as a bridge over the Atlantic, connecting his modern family in America with their roots in the West African nation of Gambia. Lacking any written records, Haley discovered it was the story — the oral tradition — that solved for him the secret of who he was.

*****

So, too, for us: the people of God. We are who we are because we have a story. That story — or at least, the first part of it — is retold in a vivid way in that passage from Deuteronomy we read this morning. Pay attention to it, and you’ll realize it’s unspeakably old, older even than the written text of the Bible. It’s oral tradition, a formula similar to the tale of Kunta Kinte in Roots. It’s a tale that tells each successive generation who they really are — even right down to our own day. Listen to it, once again:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
[Deut. 26:5-9]

It’s hard to know who that “wandering Aramean” is. It could be Abraham, the original wanderer; or it could be Jacob, who moved with his family down to Egypt in time of famine. God had uniquely positioned Jacob’s son, Joseph, overseeing all of Pharaoh’s wealth and property, to become the savior of his people.

You know what happened next: how, over the generations, the Egyptians came to distrust the burgeoning numbers of aliens within their borders and bound them in harsh ties of slavery. It was then the Lord raised up another savior for the people: an Egyptian nobleman, foster son of Pharaoh, by the name of Moses. This Moses, as it turned out, was a son of Israel. He murdered an Egyptian overseer in anger, then fled to the wilderness, fearing for his life.

God spoke to Moses from out of the burning bush. “Remove your sandals,” God told him, “for you are standing on holy ground.” The people of Israel began to learn, then, that the presence of God does not dwell in idols of human creation, but roams free.

Moses returned to Egypt, no longer the pampered son of the Pharaoh but a mighty freedom fighter for his people. Through a series of miraculous acts, he obtained freedom for the children of Israel, then led them to near-disaster on the shores of the sea, as Pharaoh’s chariots and horses closed in. But then, at the moment of despair, the Lord found them a way: not around the sea, but through it. When Pharaoh’s armies pursued, they could not follow, drowning in the waves.

There followed, then, a period of challenge and fearsome struggle, as that band of slaves — so accustomed to having their masters make every decision for them — had to learn how to be a free people. Through their wilderness wanderings, Israel learned how to live each day on the edge of starvation, trusting their God to supply the quail and manna that sustained them. There were complaints. There were rebellions. But always the Lord proved faithful.

At their darkest hour, when the people seemed utterly lost — not just physically, but morally — the Lord gave them another gift: the Torah, a set of laws to guide their lives. The heart of that holy law we know today as the Ten Commandments. They define the people of Israel to this day.

The last of that wilderness generation had to die off before God opened a way to their children and grandchildren to cross over into a new land, the land flowing with milk and honey. There the narrative from Deuteronomy ends, but we know there’s so much more to the story than that. Miraculously, that little band of nomads was given the power to triumph over much stronger nations — settled peoples who lived behind the walls of mighty cities. When there seemed to be no way to breach those walls, the Lord brought them down with the sound of trumpets.

God’s people ceased their wanderings and became rulers over the promised land. But peace did not come easy. There were old ideas, old ways, that ran counter to their simple, unadorned worship of the one God, their wilderness God. Generations of rulers rose up, known as the judges: and after them, kings.

The mightiest king of all was David, a simple shepherd boy who embodied the rustic virtues of that band of holy wanderers. God allowed him to triumph over the fearsome giant, Goliath, and to lead his followers against mighty armies that — were God not on their side — would have utterly destroyed them. The victorious David constructed a holy city on the ruins of an old one, and made ready to build his Lord a magnificent temple — until his own sin caught up with him, and his son Solomon had to finish the job.

Generations followed, of kings good and bad — but mostly bad. God raised up prophets to call the people and their leaders back to holy ways, but the people continued to disobey. Finally, an angry God sent a foreign invader to defeat the nation and tear down the temple of Solomon.

Yet, even in wrath, God could not destroy this beloved people utterly. When their conquerors hauled the ruling class odd to Babylon, to live under close watch in a gilded cage, God molded that captive people, over several generations, into a faithful remnant that embodied the law of Moses once again. Then, through the miraculous intervention of another foreign invader, the Lord opened a way for them to return home, to rebuild the temple and reestablish the law.

Faithfulness still proved difficult. The lure of wealth and power enticed God’s people and their leaders to abandon the simple way of holy living. In time, new invaders — first the Greeks under Alexander the Great and then the Romans — came to rule over their land.

The desire of the people for a messiah, a savior, grew intense — but their hopes were unfulfilled: until an unremarkable peasant boy was born to an equally unremarkable set of parents. Fearing for their lives, his parents fled with their young son to Egypt. There, in the land where their ancestors had once lived in bondage, the boy flourished and grew. Possibly he studied in the great philosophical schools of Alexandria. He brought together the highest human philosophy and the ancient devotional practices of his people.

Sometime after his family’s return to the village of Nazareth, he began a journey of teaching and healing, that soon led many of his own people to wonder if perhaps here was the savior they had been waiting for.

In one glorious, desperate week he went from being the acclaimed savior of the people to a prisoner in chains. An cruel and cynical Roman governor had him nailed to a cross, thinking he could thereby dash the people’s hopes once and for all.

And so it seemed that power had triumphed over virtue once again. Until one morning, just three days later, when, in the cool darkness of a borrowed tomb, God worked a miracle so wondrous it exceeded the people’s wildest hopes. The death that had seemed an implacable foe proved to be no match for the love and justice of God. Jesus, the people’s savior, rose again, meeting his disciples with the most ordinary of all greetings: Shalom, peace be with you.

Then that little band knew the promise of that word had been borne out at last. This crucified savior, risen from the dead, showed them the ways of perfect peace — before departing to return to the heavenly places again.

What next? God supplied the answer in a miraculous way, as the Holy Spirit fell upon Jesus’ disciples. They prophesied. They spoke in tongues. Then, on that Day of Pentecost, Peter — the weak and flawed disciple who had once denied his Lord three times — stood up and shared the good news (as we’ve heard it today in Acts, chapter 2):

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power….

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear…. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
[Acts 2:22-24, 33-36]

God’s people were emboldened, then, to carry that gospel, expressed so simply by Peter, to the ends of the earth. Even the mighty Roman empire — that force that had once crushed out Jesus’ life like a bug underfoot — fell before the power of the good news. In a few generations’ time, even the emperor himself would bow the knee to the crucified and risen savior.

There’s so much more that could be told — because the story continued. Through a great missionary movement, the heirs of the apostles carried the gospel to the ends of the earth. Through trials and turmoil, through good times and bad, through backsliding and reformation, prophets called the people back to God’s ways.

In our own day, God’s story continues: a story entrusted even to us, God’s people in this particular place. But time is fleeting, so that must be a story for another day….

*****

Yet, in the most profound sense, it’s not our story. It never was. It remains, at its deepest roots, God’s story.

Most of the good work done by Christians in Jesus’ name, over the centuries that followed, has not been done by individual believers on their own. It’s been accomplished by the church: believers together. When you and I gather in this place of worship week after week, we’re standing in that proud tradition. We join brothers and sisters in the faith, and together we grow. Together we serve. Together we love.

Which is why it’s vitally important to join with our fellow believers, as we’ll do in a few short weeks, together pledging our financial support of the work of the church. The church is so much more than a club where individuals pick and choose the spiritual activities they like the best. The Bible calls the church the body of Christ. We are more than a mere aggregation of individuals. We are a congregation — and that’s very different. It is here where we encounter God’s story, as the Israelites encountered it of old. It is here that, together in community, we make it our story as well.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, you have called us each by name,
but you have also called us together.
Here in the church, which is your body,
you have called us into your story,
the story of salvation.
By the power of your Holy Spirit,
fashion us into the body you would have us be:
hands reaching out into the world in love,
to call others to yourself. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.